Nathaniel & Emeline Gray: Faith & Charity
“The fiftieth anniversary of their marriage, which was celebrated at their dwelling in Oakland, December 29, 1882, was marked by notable features, and above all by the affection and love evinced by a host of friends. The wedlock had been real and the golden wedding was a peculiarly touching and appropriate commemoration of two lives typically blended and made one in faith and benevolent experience.”
That is how historian and Californian Hubert Howe Bancroft, a contemporary of the Grays, described the union of this very special couple, whose generosity and basic goodness still stand as models for all.
Nathaniel P. Gray was born on July 20, 1808 in Pelham, Massachusetts to John Gray and his wife, Elizabeth “Betsy” (Rankin) Gray. The Grays were an established family in the Bay State and in Pelham. Nathaniel’s grandfather and namesake was a Revolutionary War soldier who died at the age of thirty-two from illnesses contracted during the war. His father was known as “Cooper” John Gray, so as to distinguish him from “Tanner” John Gray, and he had a quarry from which the stones for the construction of Amherst College were quarried. As a boy, Nathaniel drove the team that delivered them.
Emeline Amanda Hubbard was born in Sunderland, Massachusetts on July 1, 1805, the daughter of Giles Hubbard and Rebecca Smith Hubbard. She married Nathaniel Gray in 1832 and shortly after, the couple moved to New York City, where Nathaniel first took up the trade of stone cutter. After six years, he was hired by the New York Tract Society whose mission was the moral uplift of the people through the church, Sunday schools, and religious meetings. In this work, Nathaniel and Emeline were brought into contact with the city’s sick and destitute, and they recognized their calling. They served all who needed assistance regardless of race, ethnicity, or condition. It is said that he assisted several slaves fleeing from bondage. Nathaniel continued this work for twelve years until his meager pay proved insufficient to support his family of five children.
Nathaniel Gray became a partner in a funeral establishment which sent him to California in February of 1850 to open a branch office in San Francisco. He traveled by way of the Isthmus of Panama and arrived in June aboard the Sarah Sands. His funereal supplies, which were shipped around Cape Horn, arrived in San Francisco before him, but were almost immediately consumed in a great fire. Having only his trunk of personal items and a few hundred dollars, he arranged the purchase of the only undertaking business in the city at that time, consisting of two mules, a wagon fitted up to serve as a hearse, twelve coffins, some lumber, carpenter’s tools and a canvass tent. From this inauspicious start, his business began. The genuine compassion he felt for those in need, was an asset that served him well as an undertaker.
About the time of his departure for San Francisco, Gray encountered a fugitive slave named Isaac Wright, whom he brought with him to California. According to historian Bancroft, Wright traveled on to Australia, but eventually returned to San Francisco. Wright’s wife and children were then residing in the state of Maine and Gray paid for Wright’s passage to rejoin his family.
In San Francisco’s early years, no one was recording deaths in the city, and so Nathaniel made it his task to keep a record. His tally showed 963 burials between July 1 and the end of 1850; it would amount to over 30,000 by the time of his death in 1889.
In 1852, he returned east and brought his wife and two of his five children back with him to California. The journey to the west coast via Panama was arduous, uncomfortable, and dangerous, with crowded steamers, unsanitary sleeping quarters, and difficult traveling conditions, but Emeline and her children, ages 16 and 5, proved their mettle.
Once in San Francisco, Emeline joined her husband as a full partner in the charitable work of the city. They belonged to the First Presbyterian Church and their home became a stopping place for the many missionaries on their way to the Orient. The plight of women and children left destitute by the death or abandonment of their husbands, led Emeline to form the Ladies’ Protection and Relief Society. She also began the Chinese Home for Rescued Girls. After the Civil War, she provided the funds for the erection and furnishing of a school for freedmen in North Carolina, which was run by the American Missionary Association. One would be hard-pressed to find a church or charitable organization in San Francisco that never received a contribution from the Grays.
San Francisco was still a rugged place. In 1856, the Vigilance Committee was reorganizing to address charges of political corruption in the government. The catalyst for the Committee’s rebirth was a political duel in which James P. Casey shot James King “of William.” In her later years, Emma Amanda Gray, Nathaniel’s daughter, would recall seeing the funeral cortege of James King of William and the unforgettable spectacle of the lynched bodies of James Casey and Charles Cora hanging from the roof of “Fort Gunnybags,” the Vigilance Committee headquarters. Her brother Giles served on the Vigilance Committee and later was elected to the state legislature.
Two of the Gray’s sons, Edward “Ned” and George had remained with Emeline’s family in Vermont, while they pursued their education. When she returned east to visit them in 1858, she purchased a house and lot on Amity Street in Amherst and let her brother Rodolphus Hubbard use it rent-free for his Boys’ School. Ned and George lived there while they attended Amherst College. Lincoln Street was later cut though this property, but the house still remains.
Politically, Nathaniel Gray was an anti-slavery Whig, who became a founding member of the Republican party in San Francisco. Along with F. P. Tracy, he was a member of California’s first Republican Club. The club was so small, at first, that when they met in his office, it was said that there were more coffins than California Republicans. Although he eschewed public office for himself, he did serve one term in the state legislature and also served as the city’s coroner.
Nathaniel Gray did well and he did good. He was successful in business, but he clearly viewed his work as more than his job. He endowed a chair at the San Francisco Theological Seminary and gave that institution valuable land. For the education of women, he donated $10,000 to Mills Seminary and funded a scholarship for one needy student each year to receive free tuition. He donated to the children’s hospital and to the nurses’ training school, enabling women to earn their own living.
The Grays moved to Oakland in 1877. There, Mrs. Gray funded the first kindergarten at the First Presbyterian Church.
Emeline Amanda (Hubbard) Gray passed away on January 20, 1887. Of her, it was written:
“The life of Mrs. Gray furnishes a beautiful example of a life and character moulded and ruled by strong Christian faith and love. She became a follower of Christ at the age of 17, and… from the very first her piety assumed a practical form. The great cause of foreign missions was just coming into recognition among the New England churches at the time of her earliest religious experience. She gave herself in heart to the cause, and desired nothing so much as to go with Christ’s gospel to the heathen. Her health, however, which was never robust forbade. When it was decided that she could not go, she offered her most valued treasure to the cause. Quietly unclasping from her neck the string of gold beads that had been bequeathed her from her mother, who had died when the daughter was but three years old, she gave it as her offering toward the spreading of the gospel and for years after she refused to wear any ornament, even so much as a plain gold ring, that she might give the more to the cause of missions. This beautiful spirit of self-sacrifice for Christ’s sake, and his gospel’s sake, followed her through life, and made Mrs. Gray a very efficient power in both church and society generally.”
Nathaniel Gray lived until the 24th of April in 1889. One newspaper summed up his life in this way:
“And it was indeed a useful life, unassuming, kindly, generous, and above all, spiritual. He went to California in those early days when society was well nigh inchoate, and lived until he saw the palpitating mass crystallize into the well ordered State. In all the changes incident to such a process, while neglecting no duty as a citizen, he ever sought to do first that which lay nearest to him—the work of the Master. The great world heard nothing of his name or labors, and yet from the beginning until the end of his life there, by his patient continuance in well-doing, he was constantly a builder along those invisible lines which alone can make men and States great and permanent.”
“A Funeral Eulogy,” Daily Alta California , 29 April, 1889.
“A Gift to Mills College,” newspaper and date unknown.
Ancestors and Descendants of Giles Hubbard, McGregor, IA: Widman & Sanford,Printers, 1885.
Bancroft, Hubert Howe, “History of the Life of Nathaniel Gray: A Character Study”, Chronicles of the Builders of the Commonwealth, San Francisco: The History Co., Publishers, 1889.
“Birthday Party, Christening and Wedding,” Oakland Evening Tribune, 11 July 1885.
Cummins, Ella Sterling, “Woman’s Work,” The San Franciscan, 24 July 1885.
“Death of Nathaniel Gray,” Daily Alta California, 25 April 1889.
“Full of Years,” Oakland Evening Tribune, 24 April 1889.
“Gray’s Will: Ten Thousand Dollars for Mills College,” newspaper and date unknown.
McLean, Rev. Dr., “Biographical Sketch of the Life of Mrs. Nathaniel Gray,” Our Work at Home, December 1892.
“Mrs. Nathaniel Gray,” The Occident, 23 March 1887.
“Nathaniel Gray,” San Francisco Morning Call, 25 April 1889.
“Nathaniel Gray: A Philanthropic Veteran’s Death,” San Francisco Chronicle, 25 April 1889.
“Nathaniel Gray: Death of a Good and Liberal-Hearted Man,” Oakland Enquirer, date unknown.
“Nathaniel Gray’s Will,” newspaper and date unknown.
“One Who Will Be Missed,” New York Evangelist, date unknown.
Parmenter, C. O., History of Pelham, Massachusetts, from 1738 to 1898, Amherst, MA: Press of Carpenter & Morehouse, 1898.
“Pelham and the California Gold Rush: Selected Sources,” notes prepared for the author by Robert Lord Keyes, 21 July 2008.
Potter, Mabel Gray, “Gray Family”, manuscript, copy at History Room Archives Collection, Pelham Free Public Library, Pelham, MA.
Potter, Mabel Gray, “Hubbard Hichborn Genealogy,” manuscript, copy at History Room Archives Collection, Pelham Free Public Library, Pelham, MA.